"Fire and Ice" is one of Robert Frost's best-known poems, but it feels more modern than some of his other famous works, like "The Road Not Taken" and "After Apple-Picking." You get no sense of the quaint New England lifestyle that many people associate with Frost.
The poem describes a fictional debate between people who say that the world will end in fire and people who say it will end in ice. The debate is highly symbolic, despite the claims of a Harvard astronomer named Harlow Shapley who thought the poem was based on a conversation he had with Frost in which he explained how "life on earth" would be extinguished either through "incineration" or a "permanent ice age" (source).
Other critics have suggested that the poem was inspired by the Inferno, an epic poem by the Italian Dante Alighieri. "Inferno" means "a hot place," but Dante pulls a surprising move by covering the very bottom of Hell in ice. In fact, Satan himself is trapped waist-deep in a huge sheet of ice. This image totally contradicts the view of Hell as a blazing place where Satan roams around carrying a pitchfork. Dante's point – which Frost seems to pick up on – is that the very worst people are the ones who use their "cold" intelligence to commit terrible acts. (To learn more about Dante's version of an icy Hell, check out Canto XXXII).
"Fire and Ice" was first published in Harper's Magazine in 1920, and it was republished in Frost's 1923 collection New Hampshire. Robert Frost is one of the most important American poets of the 20th century. He won the Pulitzer Prize four times and was asked to deliver a poem at President John F. Kennedy's 1961 inauguration.
"Fire and Ice" deals with a question that it is on the tip of everyone's tongue right now. How are human beings going to destroy the planet? Will it be in a blaze of suffocating heat or "fire," as in global warming? Or will it be in blast of "ice," like a nuclear winter or the exhaustion of the earth's molten core? Clearly, this poem has "disaster movie" written all over it. Who says poetry can't be timely?
Except that Frost's poem is not about natural disasters. Or, not entirely. "Fire" and "ice" are symbols of two different sides of the human animal: the passionate and the rational. Our "passions" define our animal nature, and our reason makes us humans. We all know how ferocious a wild, untamed beast can be. But the poem argues that the human mind and intelligence is an equally dangerous weapon, one with the power to turn the earth – or at least the parts inhabited by humans – into a cold and uninhabitable wasteland.
This poem is a textbook example of extended symbolism, and "hot" and "cold" are symbols that we use every day. Frost's use of symbols is no different from someone who has just suffered some cruel trick or manipulation and says, "That's cold, man. That's ice cold."